Down 39-34 with 3:57 left on the clock, your team is facing a 1st-and-goal from the nine-yard line—what do you do?
That was the situation Larry Fedora and his coaching staff faced after the North Carolina Tar Heels' miraculous 27-point comeback against the 19th-ranked Louisville Cardinals. Up to that point, UNC was flawless on offense, scoring a touchdown on every possession in the second half.
What happened next has influenced me to build restraints into my couch.
Now I must admit that I am not a coach, and there may have been extenuating circumstances that I am unaware of that would lead a coach to make such egregious decisions. But if your team is down just five points and within nine yards of a win, I would suggest you run the ball to work the clock.
There was just under four minutes left in the game for Carolina, and the end zone was looking huge and friendly. Obviously, you don't want to leave Louisville's explosive offense with too much time on the clock, especially after they lit up UNC for 36 points in the first half.
That's exactly why you run the ball.
It was a must-score situation for the Tar Heels, so they had four downs to get nine yards. Instead of running the ball and grinding it out, Carolina chose to stick with the hurry-up offense that got them to this point. On top of that, they tried to throw the ball on the first two downs.
The result was Bryn Renner running for his life on the first play and losing three yards on the effort. That was followed up by a completion to Erik Highsmith at the three. A false start would bring the ball back to the 8-yard line, which is where they finally decided to run Romar Morris.
Morris picked up four yards to bring up a 4th-and-goal from the 4-yard line.
The next play was a pass to Erik Highsmith in the end zone, which was broken up by the defender. Though the officials could have easily called an interference on the play, that doesn't change the fact that the game was lost by poor play-calling and clock management.
A gift had been given to Carolina when Alex Dixon recovered Adrian Bushell's fumble on the kick return. Instead of opening that gift and handling it with care, the UNC coaching staff decided to smash it like a Halloween pumpkin.
Their final drive had started from the 23-yard line, after Dixon's fumble recovery. From there, UNC attempted to pass the ball on five out of six plays and only melted 1:45 off of the clock. The second pass attempt resulted in a pass interference that got them to the 9-yard line.
Despite gaining 15 yards on the play, the results could have been much worse. If that pass goes incomplete and there is no call on the play, Carolina would have been facing a 3rd-and-10 from the 23.
You simply cannot waste downs and stop the clock in this situation.
It's tough to say whether head coach Larry Fedora or offensive coordinator Blake Anderson should be blamed for this, but one must assume the plays went through Fedora. In the end, the blame must fall on his shoulders.
This was an extraordinary comeback by the Tar Heels, and I hate to take away from that by harping on their missed opportunity. The coaching staff and players should be commended for holding their heads high and putting up a fight in the second half.
At 36-7, I was ready to turn off the television, and I'm sure the players were thinking about hitting the showers. But the coaching staff managed to light a fire under them, and they fought their butts off.
It's just a shame it had to end the way it did, and running the ball could have made all the difference. Perhaps this will be a learning experience for the coaching staff, as well as the players.
There are some tough games down the schedule for Carolina, and the team desperately needs to make some adjustments before this season hits the fan.